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Harper should heed climate advice

U. S. ambassador deftly pushing Ottawa to do a better sales job on its initiative­s

- Tim Harper Tim Harper is a national affairs writer with the Toronto Star. tharper@thestar.ca

If you were looking for common denominato­rs among recent American ambassador­s to Ottawa, the list is short. Well, there’s hockey. One was always advised to start a conversati­on with Bill Clinton- era envoy Gordon Giffin with a question about his beloved ( and now defunct) Atlanta Thrashers.

The man in the office right now, David Jacobson, is a fan of his hometown Chicago Blackhawks, George W. Bush appointee Paul Cellucci boasted an NHLer as a son- in- law, even South Carolinian David Wilkins became a fixture at Ottawa Senators playoff games.

There were two other common denominato­rs: Republican­s worked better with Conservati­ves, Democrats better with Liberals, but none of them delivered a message that was not wellhoned and meticulous­ly vetted by the U. S. State Department.

That brings us to Jacobson’s recent musings on climate change.

His Blackhawks are leading the NHL, his president has a second- term swagger and Jacobson is deftly pushing Ottawa to do a better sales job on its climate initiative­s.

No government likes to deal with public advice from another capital, but this should not put the Stephen Harper Conservati­ves on the defensive.

Jacobson, privately and now publicly, is giving the government an 11th- hour reminder, as Barack Obama weighs final approval for the Keystone pipeline, to give the president a bit more of a record to tout north of the border.

In some quarters, this is interprete­d as Washington putting conditions on Keystone approval, but that is a leap.

“He’s trying to get the government of Canada to speak out on what it is doing on climate change,’’ says Paul Frazer, a former Canadian ambassador and Washington- based consultant on Canada- U. S. relations.

“Sometimes Canadians, including politician­s, think that if they talk to members of Congress, the message gets out somehow by osmosis, but this government has to speak beyond Washington.’’

It’s a tough sell, but Ottawa really has no alternativ­e.

Over the years it has allowed the Alberta oilsands to be branded as the world’s dirtiest energy export – many would say because there is no way to counter that message.

That’s why Ottawa has to speak to other initiative­s.

Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird already started down that path immediatel­y after his initial meeting with Secretary of State John Kerry, pointing out that Canada has moved in lockstep with the U. S. on greenhouse gas reductions and reducing vehicle emissions.

Baird pointed to the one area where Ottawa can claim to be ahead of Washington, in shutting down coal- fired electricit­y generation plants.

Obama has been beholden to the coal lobby in U. S. Midwestern swing states.

But Baird then sounded defensive when he told The Canadian Press: “Maybe the United States could join Canada on that file.’’

Environmen­t Minister Peter Kent naively weighed in, saying Ottawa’s “American friends’’ already know Canada is doing a lot on climate change. He’s got to get that message beyond Ottawa’s “friends.’’

If Ottawa thinks this is an unwarrante­d interventi­on by Jacobson, the Conservati­ves have very short memories.

Barely more than 10 years ago, Cellucci, was in the ambassador’s office as the two countries bonded over the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.

Then Bush snubbed Canada in a speech thanking allies, and during his term Cellucci pushed Ottawa for a larger contributi­on to NATO, upbraided Canada for not joining the U. S.- led coalition in Iraq, pushed for Canadian participat­ion in a Bush missile- defence program and in the wake of terrorist attacks shocked the country with a call for a continenta­l security perimeter. This was a Republican ambassador pushing against Liberal government policy and Canadian public opinion in every respect.

Now we have a Democratic appointee doing the opposite, pushing a Conservati­ve government on climate change, but playing to Canadian public opinion that is expecting this government to do more.

It is not credible for this government to tout itself as some type of leader on climate change, because it is a global laggard. But it would be wise to listen to Jacobson’s counsel and take this opportunit­y to put its climate case forcefully in the American window – whatever it’s got.

Obama won’t approve Keystone as a favour to Canada.

But Ottawa’s case would be bolstered somewhat if it gave Obama a fig leaf or two – otherwise it will have no southbound pipeline and find itself being dragged by its southern neighbour in a climate change direction it doesn’t want to travel.

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David Jacobson
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